You might expect at least a bit of enchantment to accrue from the reunion of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer atop a Mississippi bluff 50 years after their early adventures. But you'd be dead wrong.
The idea never occurred to Mark Twain, and Bernard Sabath, whose "The Boys in Autumn" opened last night at the Circle in the Square, should have cast it from his mind immediately.
The play, short as it is, leaves its two performers, George C. Scott and John Cullum, hopelessly stranded.
There is a feeling of anticipation as Richard Nelson's sensitive lighting illuminates the old frame house, a rolling lawn with a rock outcropping in front and an inviting woodland behind. Some faint ragtime strains are heard.
And it is encouraged when Thomas Gray (nee Tom Sawyer) arrives in a beat-up Model T to be warned off his property by a shotgun-toting Henry Finnegan (Huck). The two spar for awhile until recognition is complete.
But that's as far as Sabath can take us. A jug of corn likker Tom (Cullum) fetches from the car loosens their tongues, and the lighting dims briefly at intervals as the two recall people and scenes from the past. But Sabath can think of nothing other than stains on both their characters as they drunkenly unburden themselves.
Before moving to this bluff outside Hannibal, Mo., Henry Finnegan ran a hardware store in Great Bend, Kan., and had a wife named Cloud, now passed on. Tom, who never married, became a vaudevillian teamed with a partner named Tillie, also passed on.
But both the sharred merriment, as the two trip the light fantastic at Tom's urging, and grief, as they confide in one another, are hollow in spite of Scott's generous and skilled performance and Cullum's engaging capering under Theodore Mann's unobtrusive direction.
They are, indeed, ill met on this "sunny September afternoon in the early 1920s," when crossword puzzles (Huck's only passion) were new. And who on earth would want to meet those free young spirits as dull oldsters? How dare Sabath? No matter, "The Boys in Autumn" will soon be forgotten.
Not all American lives demand recounts. After all, as F. Scott Fitzgerald told us, so few have second acts. And not everyone is such a sequel-squealing hero as Superman, Rocky or Rambo.
Bernard Sabath's play The Boys in Autumn, which opened last night at the uptown Circle in the Square Theater in the distinguished company of John Cullum and George C. Scott, purports to tell us what happened to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in the autumn of their days, long after those reports of Mark Twain's death had ceased to be exaggerated.
The idea of the play is based on a pleasant and common fantasy - what happens to characters in a book when the pages are closed and their first author falls silent?
There can be few with so little imagination that they have not carted off favorite characters into a fresh life. What kind of king did Fortinbras make, where did Oliver Twist end and whatever happened to Holly Golightly?
Such private literary games are part of life's rich fabric, but should we have the courage or even nerve to impose our fantasies on other people? In the case of Sabath, one suspects emphatically not.
In a play that is a good deal shorter than it seems, the playwright tells us little about Twain's immortals that any reasonable person would wish to know.
They did not, he suggests, have particularly happy lives. Both were stained with hell-deserving crimes, which I shall refrain from mentioning as their disclosure provides the sum total of a meager plot. Meeting 50 years later - in the early 1920s on that special bluff overlooking the Mississippi outside Hannibal, Missouri, where Huck still lives - they try to capture the buccaneering spirit of their special childhood.
Sure, there's some fun envisaging Huck Finn sitting by a radio set or watching Tom Sawyer try to start up a Model T Ford. But such concepts owe as much to simple arithmetic as imagination, and the mere passage of time is surely the least interesting journey fictional heroes can take.
Even their criminality - both seemingly minor league stabs at major league crimes - is scarcely interesting, while their rediscovery of childhood dreams, although pleasingly romantic, is also chillingly predictable.
Of course it is always a pleasure to see Cullum and Scott on stage individually. The stagily quirky Cullum and stagily truculent Scott make a most agreeable double act, not least - and perilously perhaps most - when they indulge themselves and their audience with a dash of the old soft-shoe in a brief vaudeville routine that dangerously resembles the high-spot of the evening.
You see, nothing happens. At least nothing worth writing home about, particularly if what you are hoping to send is a play.
Sabath's stock of wit is so minimal and mildewed that he can make a running gag out of the college-educated and crossword-addicted Finn, knowing that the word "horripilation" means coming out in gooseflesh, a semantic tidbit of which the vaudevillian Sawyer was unaware.
So, there it is and there it lies. The play needs more goose bumps and less "horripilation."
Scott is charming, and gives the critics another chance to describe his gash of a grin (this time I thought I'd change sharklike to wolflike) and Cullum once more provides fluster with a moral force.
Director Theodore Mann most professionally keeps them moving around the stage in that special quadrille typical of all theater in the round, calculated to share with the audiences fair portions of profiles and backs of necks.
The solidly realistic setting by Michael Miller is one of the most choice pieces of stage real estate we have prospected this season.
But if this be The Boys in Autumn, let not winter come!
With the arrival of ''The Boys in Autumn,'' Bernard Sabath's new play at the Circle in the Square, the 1985-86 Broadway season has reached its official close. While this season never did produce any cutthroat competition for the honor of best play, the worst play sweepstakes is being bitterly contested right up to the final hour. ''The Boys in Autumn,'' a terminally innocuous speculation about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in middle age, almost makes one long for ''The Boys of Winter,'' a Vietnam war drama that had been the prize 1985-86 turkey until this point. Let's be grateful that the season has ended before anyone could write ''The Boys of Spring'' or turn Roger Kahn's good book ''The Boys of Summer'' into a flop musical.
What would Huck (George C. Scott) and Tom (John Cullum) be up to when they have a surprise reunion in 1920's Hannibal? It would be cruel to divulge the evening's bombshells, although I will end obvious speculation by reporting that, pace Leslie Fiedler, the men have not opened a Missouri branch of ''La Cage aux Folles.'' Mr. Sabath has instead given the men lurid secrets that reduce two of the most beloved characters in our cultural heritage to extras in a Harold Robbins novel.
Those who wish to learn those secrets are hereby forewarned that Tom's confession doesn't begin until late in Act I, while Huck's must await late Act II. The rest is padding. Mr. Sabath opens the evening with a tedious cat-and-mouse game in which the two men must laboriously determine that they are indeed the Huck and Tom who knew each other when. (They use different names now.) Other stalling comes in the form of Mr. Cullum's demonstration of a vaudeville routine long performed by Tom on the whistle-stop two-a-day circuit. (''Get the hook!,'' shouts the annoyed Mr. Scott, and not a moment too soon.) The men also get to complete one of those newfangled crossword puzzles, and, at the start of Act II, Mr. Cullum tinkers at some considerable length with a recalcitrant hand-cranked automobile.
Other Twain characters are accounted for along the way, with Becky Thatcher proving, in absentia, a Freudian fall woman to rival Mrs. Bates in ''Psycho.'' The rambling exchanges are linked by lines like, ''Well, let's talk about something else.'' The name-dropping and occasional quotations of actual Twain passages aside, there's not a trace of the great man's voice or wit in Mr. Sabath's dialogue. The Huck and Tom of the playwright's dreams have rolled off contemporary Hollywood's male-menopause assembly line. They are soppy, boozy buddies who mourn their lost youth while hoping that somehow they ''could help each other'' get past adulthood's humbling blows. This being the roaring 20's and all, Huck and Tom are as likely to find redemption by going into real-estate speculation as by riding a raft, but the Mississippi still exerts its tidal pull. As Mr. Scott says wistfully at the final curtain, the river ''goes on forever'' - which makes it sound somewhat shorter than this play.
It's hard to know what attracted either star to ''The Boys in Autumn.'' They'd find more challenge playing the Duke and the King in a bus-and-truck tour of ''Big River.'' Under the direction of Theodore Mann, Mr. Cullum pours on the corn pone rather heavily, but Mr. Scott, with a raised eyebrow here and a froggy belch there, finds a few laughs as the latently civilized Huck. How one wishes that this actor could be channeling his festering energy into a part like Hickey or James Tyrone.
As for the playwright, he warns us in a Playbill essay that he is also busy speculating about the futures of other fictional characters - from Holden Caulfield to Blanche DuBois. ''I feel I know what Biff and Happy Loman are doing today,'' he writes, ''and what Eve Harrington is up to.'' Unlike Mr. Sabath, I have no idea what those characters are up to, but if their creators have any sense, they're busy renewing their copyrights.